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Salt River Valley

Salt River Valley

Afton, Wyoming, may be small but it’s the biggest little town in the Star Valley

Exhausted Mormon travelers emerged from the Lander Cutoff and settled in the Star Valley to build their futures. At fewer than 2,000 people in the 2010 census, Afton is the largest town among Smoot, Thane, and Etna strung along U.S. Highway 89 south of the Palisades Reservoir. It is ranch country for raising horses and cattle along with the grains to support them in rich pasture land beside the Salt River. Country people, cowboys and cattlemen live side-by-side with newcomers attracted by the pastoral calm of a gorgeous place. There is world class fly-fishing in local streams. The town’s water supply pours out of the world’s largest Intermittent Spring in the crotch of mountain peaks high above the town.

They ride horses, drive cattle, and they build and fly airplanes

The second family vehicle is often a horse trailer, an RV, or an airplane. Seventy-five miles north, the more famous Jackson Hole anchors Grand Teton National Park and the southern entrance to Yellowstone. But here in Afton the day-to-day is working class normal. This is a place where generous people judge your character and may offer you a place to rest or even perhaps their brand new truck to drive for the week. We know because it’s happened to us. Oh, and about those airplanes . . . the Aviat Husky factory occupies a hodge-podge of nondescript buildings which look like war surplus, the Second World War, that is. That’s what takes us to Afton! We fly a Husky A-1C 200 and return each year for its annual inspection.

Afton, Wyoming, on the ramp at KAFO

Afton, Wyoming, on the ramp at the fixed-base, the Afton Municipal Airport (KAFO)

Skilled employees build a world-class bush plane, the Aviat Husky

In 2010 we drove into Afton for the first time to take delivery on our plane. A Husky is a superbly competent little bush plane with excellent performance and short takeoff and landing capability. We tease that we spent our children’s inheritance which isn’t too far from the truth. Imagine then, arriving in a small western town with one main street, armed with an address to which we’d sent our money, and what did we find but a shabby collection of derelict grey buildings hard on the narrow sidewalk. (Since we first saw it, there’s been a makeover and last fall was nicely repainted.) Don’t judge this book by its cover! Inside is a factory employing a few dozen industrious employees who basically hand-build the aircraft. They know each one intimately by the time it’s finished and they take great personal pride in putting a bit of themselves into each one by building it right!

Star Valley and Afton WY

What is it about Afton Wyoming? THIS is what it is!

Afton, Wyoming

The Corral

The best food in Afton comes from the sea!

There are several good restaurants that serve generous fare but the most unexpected, and for our tastes, the most outstanding is Rocky Mountain Seafood run by the colorful Larry and his partner Julie. He’s a retired ship captain and she a harbor master transplanted from Pacific seacoast to interior mountains. And they still have good connections in the coastal fishing industry! The seafood arrives as air cargo and is trucked from Salt Lake City direct to the restaurant, deliciously prepared and on your plate before the tang of fresh salt air has faded. The menu is simple, a mix and match of basic preparations where one type of fish can be switched with another. The whole point is for the flavor and quality of fish to shine rather than indulging a cook’s conceit. If you have a kid’s tastes or don’t like fish, there’s always an excellent steak or Julie’s fine mac ‘n’ cheese. The atmosphere is dockside fish market, casual with sturdy picnic table seating, a diner where you can take your catch home in a sack or have it prepared, seat yourself–among friends or friendly strangers. Don’t look out the windows at majestic western mountains and you just may forget you’re in Wyoming!

Where dreams come true and those dreams can FLY! At the Aviat factory, home of our very own Fire Horse.

And for us there is the added inducement of this, the Aviat Aircraft Company where our very own Husky named Fire Horse was born. They also build the Pitts Special, the renowned competition aerobatic plane, as well as the Eagle II which is available as a kit or factory complete. But we’re partisans for the Husky given our 900′ runway below 200′ cliffs–we need a bush plane!
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At the southern tip of the Wind River Range is South Pass, one of the loneliest and most inhospitable places in the American West. This is hot August yet snow pockets the peaks above icy lakes. The ground is rock. Small plants cling to scruffy soil in a few protected cracks and crags but for the most part it is just rock. Flying close overhead is not recommended except on rare clear and calm days like this one when the wind doesn

At the southern tip of the Wind River Range is South Pass, one of the loneliest and most inhospitable places in the American West. This is hot August yet snow pockets the peaks above icy lakes. The ground is rock. Small plants cling to scruffy soil in a few protected cracks and crags but for the most part it is just rock. Flying close overhead is not recommended except on rare clear and calm days like this one when the wind doesn’t blow

A New Life in the West
We left the westward bound emigrants outside of Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, as they struggled through rutted and rough terrain, the stone monuments of Nebraska’s panhandle. Weeks of burden and drudge later, having buried weaker members beside the trail, their provisions were low but they’d crossed South Pass at the end of the Wind River Range and were working their way through sloping inter-mountain valleys toward the Salt River in western Wyoming near the Utah and Idaho borders. They saw it as a paradise and it is.

The Lander Cutoff on the Oregon Trail
Under the direction of Frederick W. Lander an improved trail called the Lander Cutoff was surveyed across the Sweetwater and the Green Rivers bypassing the worst of the Wind River Range before crossing the continental divide, over high passes in the Wyoming and Salt River Ranges at the headwaters of Grey’s River before making a sloping descent into the Star Valley south of Smoot near Afton, Wyoming.

An Unpredictable Shortcut
One hundred Utah men moved 62,000 cubic yards of earth to complete Lander’s road in three months’ time. It opened in 1859 and, although records are incomplete, it seems the road saw fewer wagons in each successive year. Pioneers did find clear water streams, wood for their camp fires, and good grass for their animals, but the transit was so high and steep with unpredictable, violent mountain storms that this shortcut–seven fewer days and 85 fewer miles to Fort Hall for provisions–was harder than lower and leveler routes further south, even the desert ones.

Overflying the route in August 2013
Today it’s possible to fly the entire route or follow the trails on Park Service roads or off-road vehicles. It  is both beautiful and austere, life-affirming and deadly at the same time. It makes a person respect the courage and determination of those who passed through so long ago in the course of building a modern nation. For them it was a struggle; for us it’s relatively easy. What follows is the route–with my photos to map it–in the same east to west order as the pioneers discovered it from Scotts Bluff to Afton in the Star Valley.

Flying over Grey

Flying over Grey’s River as we near Afton the terrain looks more benign. The long central creases were easy enough to travel but there were still many peaks and passes to cross.

One of advantages of the Lander Cutoff was easy access to water which trails through the southern deserts couldn

One of advantages of the Lander Cutoff was easy access to water which trails through the southern deserts couldn’t provide. But there was no easy transit here either. Water was given but the storms, deep snows, and rugged peaks wore people and animals out and many died.

Surrounded by 10,000 foot peaks this area is prime cutthroat trout habitat that attracts outdoor-adventurers whose resources and creature comforts allow them to enjoy the experience rather than just surviving it as the emigrants had to do. As this sign attests a single drop of rain water can flow into one of three great continental basins. It is majestic!

Surrounded by 10,000 foot peaks this area is prime cutthroat trout habitat that attracts outdoor-adventurers whose resources and creature comforts allow them to enjoy the experience rather than just surviving it as the emigrants had to do. As this sign attests a single drop of rain water can flow into one of three great continental basins. It is majestic!

This is Cottonwood Lake in the hills above the trail into Smoots. It is one of those rare places easy to see from a small airplane but that is otherwise unknown except to the locals who love it.

This is Cottonwood Lake in the hills above the trail into Smoots. It is one of those rare places easy to see from a small airplane but that is otherwise unknown except to the locals who love it.

This beautiful plant is salsify, a more robust near cousin to the dandelion. It

This beautiful plant is salsify, a more robust near cousin to the dandelion. It’s native and the root is edible–another way the difficult trail made some amends for the hardships.

Craggy peaks press against the sky. Look closely at center left and you may see before we did the ice boulders camouflaged by soil and sticks. On August 30th the air was hot and dry but the glacial ice was protected in the lee of mountain shadow and by a micro-climate of cold water running from the Intermittent Spring above Afton. We only discovered the ice boulders by walking close enough to feel the very cold air. This is a massive canyon which dwarfs their true size.

Craggy peaks press against the sky. Look closely at center left and you may see before we did the ice boulders camouflaged by soil and sticks. On August 30th the air was hot and dry but the glacial ice was protected in the lee of mountain shadow and by a micro-climate of cold water running from the Intermittent Spring above Afton. We only discovered the ice boulders by walking close enough to feel the very cold air. This is a massive canyon which dwarfs their true size.

This spring up Swift Creek is the largest of three periodic springs in the world. To learn a bit more about it including how it works  click here.

As mountains give way to foothills the terrain is easier and today

As mountains give way to foothills the terrain is easier and today’s recreational roads follow the old wagon route on their way to the Star Valley. Once again we see why this is called Big Sky country.

Can you imagine the relief, the pure joy of seeing this scene after weeks underway? You might have left a child in a lonely grave on a high mountain pass. Your animals too may have sickened and died. You have been exhausted, cold and hungry forever it seems. But now you are here at the head of an easy downhill path into the Star Valley flush with verdant grasslands watered by the Salt River. Hallelujah they surely thought! Their lives would never be easy and there were heartaches to come, but they

Can you imagine the relief, the pure joy of seeing this scene after weeks underway? You might have left a child in a lonely grave on a high mountain pass. Your animals too may have sickened and died. You have been exhausted, cold and hungry forever it seems. But now you are here at the head of an easy downhill path into the Star Valley flush with verdant grasslands watered by the Salt River. Hallelujah they surely thought! Their lives would never be easy and there were heartaches to come, but they’d found a home.

So Many Children A loved one from us is gone. A voice we loved is still. Even after the settlers found a good home near Afton, life wasn

So Many Children A loved one from us is gone. A voice we loved is still.
Even after the settlers found a good home near Afton, life wasn’t easy. The cemeteries in Fairview and Thane and elsewhere are full of them. And too many were children. Among the Lander pilgrims were many Mormons, also known as Latter Day Saints. The marble LDS marker denotes that affiliation. Although the modern population of the area is only a few thousand, many are Mormon and in 2011 the Church president announced plans to build a new temple in Afton.

To pick up the earlier part of the trail, see Scotts Bluff National Monument

An airplane is a marvelous way to discover a place, to see its colors and contours in scale. It is a living geography textbook! We’ve just returned from three adventuring weeks flying our Husky west to learn America. Along the way we discovered Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Scotts Bluff is an impressive natural feature in western Nebraska designated in 1919 as a National Monument for its unique geology and heroic human history. On the morning of our first night out, we left the town of Scotts Bluff in instrument weather disappointed that heavy cloud cover would deny us a look from our airplane. But with a bit of weather luck the low overcast parted briefly and voilà–a hazy but recognizable view, not the more famous Scotts Bluff, nor the Jail and Courthouse rocks, but right next door beside the Old Oregon Trail. This is what our early emigrants struggled to cross in their ox drawn Conestoga wagons.

Hover your mouse over the image to see what it looked like straight out of the camera. The goal is ALWAYS to get a great shot from the camera but that isn’t always possible as atmospheric conditions can vary widely, as does our actual distance above or sideways from the target shot. For those times when nature has another plan and a do-over isn’t possible, a photographer needs other workflow tools: What worked here: Multiply and Soft Light blend modes, a Layers adjustment expanded to the right of the histogram, then contrast, white balance, and saturation adjustments. A bit of sharpening was required and almost always is because a small airplane is an inherently unsteady platform and handheld shots are the rule. I generally avoid electronic IS and use a faster speed, higher ISO with f11 for depth of field. While my favorite lens is a 100 mm prime, this time I had a 17-85 mm telephoto in place which let me get several shots at differing focal distances into a few seconds. I think of these decisions during and after the shot as a kind of forensic retouch as necessary.

Eons of wind and water layered areas of hard limestone over softer deposits of sand, lime, fossils, and volcanic ash; uneven erosion left behind unusual shapes high above the Platte River. Geologists are especially interested in the exposed 740 strata of Scotts Bluff. But early travelers on horseback cared less about how they were made and more about how to overcome them.

One early traveler described it this way as, “a large and deep ravine . . . very uneven and difficult, winding from amongst innumerable mounds six to eight feet in height, the space between them frequently so narrow as scarcely to admit our horses.” Mid-19th century emigrants in wagons following the Platte River west along the Oregon Trail were halted by such impassible barriers until improvements in the trails were eventually made and they found new and better passes out of the valley.

But the terrain features had advantages too as Westward bound emigrants of the Lander, Mormon, and California groups used these huge structures as landmarks to lead them along the base of the bluffs. In our airplane we used them to point the way west toward Afton, Wyoming, the home of Aviat which builds the Pitt Special, the Christen Eagle, and our own Husky.

For the next leg of the journey read about the treacherous Lander Cutoff on the Oregon Trail.